I found several frames of pollen in the honey super of one of my hives today.
The last time I found pollen in the honey super was two summers ago and it happened with what I used to call my nasty hive, a hive packed with the most defensive, meanest bees in Newfoundland. Everything about that hive was a headache, so I just assumed pollen in the honey super was a symptom of mentally deranged bees. That colony eventually died and I was more than happy to see it go. So when I found the frames of pollen today, I thought, “What the hell?”
At first I thought, “Okay, I’ve got another crazy colony on my hands.” Which seems to fit because the bees in this colony are, unfortunately, related to Old Nasty. Their queen mated with drones from the nasty hive. But that’s just speculation, me making up some stuff that sounds like it could be true but probably isn’t when you get right down to it.
So I did a little more poking around the oracle we call the Internet and asked a few beekeeping friends of mine if they’ve seen this before. And they have. After shooting some emails back and forth and thinking it over, I’ve come to the following explanation:
The bees are filling the honey super with pollen because they don’t have enough brood to eat up all the pollen that’s coming in.
I don’t know if that’s it, but I think that’s it. Here’s why: The queen in the hive is at least three years old, maybe four years old, and she’s not laying as much brood as she used to. But here’s the clincher: I removed five frames of brood from the hive about two weeks ago to boost up another colony that was slow to build up this spring. I virtually removed all the capped brood from the hive, and some open brood too. So the Lack of Brood hypothesis makes sense.
The last time I saw pollen in the honey super two summers ago, that colony was on the way out as well.
It was also suggested that the bees tend to store pollen close to the most active entrance, and seeing how the most active entrance in the hive is above the honey super, the bees are naturally dropping the pollen in the honey super. But I don’t buy that. If it was true, then most of my honey supers I’ve had since 2010 would have had pollen in them, and most of them haven’t had a spec of pollen.
The lack of brood makes even more sense because when I suddenly removed the frames of brood, all the bees that would have normally been occupied with nursing duties had nothing to do, so they probably got a little off kilter and started filling pollen in the honey super instead. A perfect example of stupid humans messing up everything. The colony was probably low on brood to begin with and removing more brood only made the pollen-in-the-honey-super situation even worse.
At any rate, if I ever see the bees store a lot of pollen in the honey super again, I’ll remember that it could be a sign there isn’t much brood in the hive and that the queen could be failing. I might also invest in a hive-top pollen trap.
I’ll gladly update this mini-ramble with other information if it comes my way. But for now, those are my conclusions.
JULY 12, 2016: Note to self: The next time I steal most of the brood from a hive, remove the honey super along with it.
August 2019 Postscript #1: I had pollen in the honey supers again. I think it happened the next summer. Then I began to wonder if there was something about my local climate that caused the bees to store pollen in the honey super. I did some poking around again and heard from other local beekeepers who noticed more pollen than usual in their honey supers. We talked it out and took another semi-educated guess that the bees began hording more pollen because we had a dry summer with hardly any rain, which reduced the production of nectar, which means there wasn’t much nectar for the bees to collect. So they switched to pollen instead, or at least more pollen than nectar. I remember finding full frames of nothing but nectar in the honey supers.
What can you do about that? A few veteran beekeepers suggested I block off all the top entrances and force the bees to store pollen and nectar starting from the bottom up. I used empty moisture quilts to add plenty of ventilation and blocked off the top entrances — and it worked. The bees concentrated the brood nest in the bottom of the hive and added pollen and then honey around the brood nest in that order, so that the top of the hive was nothing but honey. It was great because I could tell by looking down through the hive exactly how far along the bees were in storing honey.
The hives with only bottom entrances went into winter really well too. My other colonies clustered at the top of the hive, many not moving down below the honey until later in the winter. But the ones with only top entrances clustered at the very bottom and didn’t make it to the top of the hive until late winter. I loved that because I didn’t have to guess if they were running low on honey. I could tell how much honey was left in the hive by how high the bees were in the hive. That’s not always the case in hives with both top and bottom entrances.
I added inner covers to give them a top entrance once winter kicked in so they could get out for cleansing flights once they made it to the top. But otherwise, they did great with just bottom entrances.
Postscript #2: However, the next season when I tried to go with only bottom entrances, it didn’t really work. One of my hives got congested so fast that the colony swarmed on me. Damn it. So I put top entrances on all my hives. They made tons of honey with hardly a spec of pollen in the honey supers.
Conclusion: Beats me. Maybe the bees store pollen in the honey supers when they’re suddenly low on brood that would normally consume the pollen. Maybe the bees store pollen in the honey supers during dry spells when flowering plants produce more pollen than nectar. I don’t know.